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CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | email@example.com
The New England First Amendment Coalition recently testified against recommendations to allow only attorneys and litigants to access a new online judicial records system in Maine.
Under a proposal being considered by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, all other members of the public would only be able to obtain these court records by visiting individual courthouses.
“Providing online access to only attorneys and litigants, as is being recommended, undermines the ability of all Maine residents to learn about their government and to keep its judicial system accountable,” wrote Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, in comments submitted to the court on Dec. 15.
The new system is part of a $15 million effort by the state to digitize electronic records that are currently only available by hard copy. The state’s Task Force on Transparency and Privacy in Court Records provided a proposal to the court earlier this year that included recommendations on who should have access to those records once the system is in place.
NEFAC previously wrote to the task force in September, saying that “the public does not benefit from a secret court system, operating in obscurity, with meaningful access limited only to persons deemed worthy of finding out what’s going on. In the long run, secrecy is corrosive to the justice system.”
In the coalition’s most recent comments, Silverman explained that there are several court systems that have successfully transitioned online. Those systems include Maine’s probate courts, the federal court system and New York state courts.
“Though not perfect, we believe these examples are instructive and, as a whole, show that broad online access can be granted while still protecting legitimate privacy interests,” Silverman wrote.
NEFAC also joined several media organizations in a brief drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. That brief, also submitted to the Supreme Judicial Court on Dec. 15, outlined the legal underpinnings to the public’s right to access court records.
“As Maine moves toward an electronic case management system, its courts have a tremendous opportunity to enhance their relationship with the public by providing Internet access to judicial records,” the groups argued. “And, as a legal matter, providing electronic access equivalent to access available at the courthouse is the most authentic means of complying with the public’s established First Amendment and common law rights of access.”
NEFAC regularly testifies in support of First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know. The coalition previously advocated for similar access to judicial records in Massachusetts, testifying for more transparency in the state’s courts and suggesting improvements to proposed rules restricting online records.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.